“Our country at work”

Covering the Johnson trial, from the hotel to hashtags


At 8:40 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 8, 160 or so people wait in two lines (marked “A-K” and “L-Z”) outside the Garden City Ballroom at the Holiday Inn in downtown Missoula. They were summoned here by Missoula District Court and they represent the remaining prospective jurors for a rape trial The New York Times described as “extending a cloud of scandal that has hung over the [University of Montana] for two years.”

After they are checked in, sheriff’s deputies and court bailiffs usher the prospective jurors into the ballroom, which has been arranged by Holiday Inn staff into the corporate hospitality version of a courtroom. Though Holiday Inn general manager Chris Bosshardt says the sudden influx isn’t an “economic driver,” the Holiday Inn is happy to play host. “This is the process. This is our country at work,” he says. “I’m proud of that.”

Last month, District Court Judge Karen Townsend announced that the court had contacted 400 potential jurors for the trial of former UM quarterback Jordan Johnson, who last year was accused of raping a fellow student. The trial has been forthcoming for more than six months and has garnered attention from national media as the latest chapter in Missoula’s sexual assault saga dating back to December 2011. Since then, at least nine other Griz football players have been implicated in sexual assaults. The university also terminated the contracts of its head football coach and athletic director, and the Department of Justice, Department of Education and the National Collegiate Athletic Assocation opened investigations at the university.

In January, the prosecution requested jury selection be done from an extra-large jury pool, and Townsend obliged. Though Johnson’s defense attorney and former Griz nose tackle David Paoli said he’d prefer jury selection be done in a courtroom rather than the Holiday Inn, Townsend refused. “We can’t accommodate everyone,” she said.

Reporters observe jury selection for the Jordan Johnson trial at the Holiday Inn Downtown. The trial’s voir dire was held at the hotel to accommodate the extra-large jury pool. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Reporters observe jury selection for the Jordan Johnson trial at the Holiday Inn Downtown. The trial’s voir dire was held at the hotel to accommodate the extra-large jury pool.

Minutes before 9 a.m., reporters from KECI, KTMF, KPAX, KGVO, Montana Public Radio, the Montana Journalism Review, the Kaimin, the Missoulian and the Associated Press mill around a designated media corner waiting for something to happen. They chat about the case, about the spectacle that has gathered all of them here and about the debate that irrupted that morning regarding the appropriate hashtag journalists should use on Twitter when reporting on the case. Later in the day, and after considerable back-and-forth, #UMrape is replaced by #Johnsontrial.

Gwen Florio, a crime reporter for the Missoulian who has covered the UM scandal from the beginning, says she doesn’t quite understand why the Johnson trial has attracted so much attention. “This case, unlike almost any other of the sexual assault cases involving UM students, it was the most straightforward. We got it completely the way we always get court stories,” she says. “But this is the one that has attracted all this stuff swirling around it, and I don’t quite get that.”

By 9 a.m., all the prospective jurors have taken their seats, the defense and prosecution teams have set up behind stacks of paper and thick binders on the stage, and a bailiff asks everyone to rise as Townsend enters the ballroom and takes her own seat.

After she fumbles with the microphone, Townsend speaks inaudibly. The silence extends for an extra moment as she continues to fiddle with the mic. “Sorry,” she says finally. “Just having some technical difficulties.”

Sitting before the judge are the defense and prosecution teams, which are comprised almost entirely of UM School of Law graduates. Representing Johnson are private practice attorneys Paoli (’86) and Kirsten Pabst (’95, who also worked for the Missoula County Attorney’s Office until March 2012). Representing the state is private practice attorney Adam Duerk (’04), Missoula County Attorney Suzy Boylan (’96) and Joel Thompson, an assistant attorney general appointed by the state to assist the Missoula County Attorney’s Office. Thompson is the only attorney on the stage, including Judge Townsend (’76), who did not attend UM law school. He went to the University of Oregon.

Over the course of the next eight hours, Townsend, the prosecution and the defense work together and in their own ways to whittle down the jury pool to the 12 people they deem most capable of deciding whether or not Johnson is guilty of rape. At first, the questions are asked by Townsend and cast a wide net: Does anyone know the defendant? Does anyone know anyone else in the room? Then the attorneys take a turn and the questions hone to a point: Do you think women sometimes falsely accuse men of rape? What does a rapist look like?

At one point, Thompson asks a question of a large group of prospective jurors. He poses the question deliberately as if he were making eye contact with everyone at once. “Does anybody feel they are too big of a Griz fan to be on this case?”

Jury selection was completed Monday, Feb. 11, and the trial is ongoing.

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